Critic’s Notebook: Tennessee Williams, Restless and Revising

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One can imagine Ms. Vega, an associate curator in the Morgan’s Department of Literary and Historical Manuscripts, facing similar worries. Documents under glass; black-and-white photographs; manuscripts on yellowing paper — these would hardly seem ideal elements for conjuring a man who lived and wrote in Technicolor and was always, it seemed, on the run from his demons.

Yet “No Refuge but Writing” feels anything but static. The restless, searching energy that drove (and sometimes flattened) Williams throughout his life buzzes amid the quiet of this exhibition, which follows the dramatist’s career from “Battle of Angels” (1941), his first produced play, to “Orpheus Descending” (1957), a reworking of the same material.

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A 1951 Irving Penn portrait of Tennessee Williams in New York. Credit Irving Penn for Vogue, April 15, 1951/Condé Nast

Both “Battle,” which starred Miriam Hopkins and never made it to Broadway, and “Orpheus” were flops. But what came in between were the works that made Williams a literary titan, including “The Glass Menagerie” (1945), his breakthrough play, which he said ushered in “the catastrophe of success”; “Streetcar” (1947), his masterpiece; “The Rose Tattoo” (1951, and his only Tony Award winner); and “Cat,” his personal favorite.

These productions are mostly represented here on paper, via rough drafts, scripts, programs, notebooks, correspondence and sketches for sets. In other words, the living flux that is theater is reduced to two dimensions.

Look closer, though, at the framed pages on display, and a fraught and excited dialogue surfaces, reminding us that what is now archival was once trembling potential. Penciled notations on the rough drafts show a writer still sculpting and shaving material that, in its finished form, has acquired the solidity of sacred texts in a canon.

But how fungible they once were, names and characters and stories still swirling before settling into the shapes of posterity, and how different they might have been. The typewritten text for a late addition to “The Glass Menagerie,” its concluding scene, offers that much-quoted benediction from its narrator, Tom, to his sister: “Blow out your candles, Laura.”

Those are not, however, the play’s last words. They are “And so, goodbye.” And we can see here that this curtain-closing farewell has been penciled in, not by Williams, but by the producer of the original production of “Menagerie,” Margo Jones.

Sequential versions of what would become “Streetcar” are on display across a long wall. One draft (dated 1945-46) is titled “The Passion of a Moth,” and instructions, in the author’s hand on the upper right corner of the title page, read, “Typist — please change ‘Ralph’ to ‘Stanley’ whenever found in script.” The Blanche character appears as “Gladys” in a precursor to “Streetcar” called “Interior: Panic,” a title that speaks volumes about both the character’s and her creator’s states of mind.

There’s chatter — frenzied and buoyant, discouraged and exultant — in these changes, which suggest endless exchanges among a writer and early readers. You have the chance to examine, side by side, the four — count them, four — alternative endings that Williams proposed to the director Elia Kazan for “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” each of which slants the play toward slightly different degrees of optimism, cynicism and resignation.

Williams’s steamroller mother, Edwina, and his delicate sister, Rose — whom with the playwright made up the quarrelsome tribe of fantasists that inspired “Menagerie” — are represented here by snapshots that look as if they had been freshly unglued from the pages of a family scrapbook. The presence of his adored Rose, who would spend her life in mental institutions after being given a prefrontal lobotomy, feels especially vivid.

You can see her as a young woman, seated in serene profile in a pink dress against a twilight-blue background, in a portrait by Florence Ver Steeg. There is an innocence about the painting’s subject and its rendering that breaks your heart. And if you know anything about Williams’s life and work, you can be excused for thinking that those demure pastels scream “danger.”

The vision of the damaged Rose — of Laura and her still burning candles, of Catherine and her dangerous, endangered brain in “Suddenly, Last Summer” — would always inform Williams’s work. It also surely figured among the “dismembering furies” (a phrase scrawled on the title page of his “Orpheus Descending” manuscript) that pursued him wherever he went.

Not that he didn’t do his damnedest to outrun them. His typewriters were portable of necessity. The life portrayed in “No Refuge” is exhaustingly and hopelessly itinerant.

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The frontispiece of “The Collected Poems of Hart Crane” indicates Williams’s address-hopping way of life. Credit Tennessee Williams Collection, Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University

“I am already making plans for a faraway flight (perhaps as far as Ceylon), the night the play opens in New York,” Williams wrote during the first days of rehearsal for “Cat.” Hotel keys that he collected have been assembled into a still life that bespeaks a life that was never still.

The frontispiece of a cherished volume of Hart Crane poems, an idol of Williams’s youth, is filled with the changing addresses of its owner, from his native St. Louis to the Men’s Residence Club in Murray Hill in New York to temporary sanctuaries in Key West, Fla.; Paris; Los Angeles; Rome; Taos, N.M.; and New Orleans.

On the ink-blotted facing page, Williams has written not one but two versions (the first dated 1939, California) of a rumination on the thick skins of most people and his own too permeable flesh: “Alas for the poor dreamer, who has emerged unarmored from the womb of nature and who has been cast into the world without the indispensable insulation.”

The artist was still finding his voice, but the sensibility that would shape everything he wrote was already in place. What choice did he have but to keep running, and writing? This exhibition of fixed pieces never seems to stop moving.

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